Elie's Expositions

A bereaved father blogging for catharsis... and for distraction. Accordingly, you'll see a diverse set of topics and posts here, from the affecting to the analytical to the absurd. Something for everyone, but all, at the core, meeting a personal need.

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Monday, November 07, 2005

Babel and Diversity

After reading Mirty's conjecture regarding the Tower of Babel and the modern internet, I spent some time thinking about my own understanding of the meaning and message of that event. This builds on a discussion I had many years ago with my father, regarding the question of how there can be such divergent races and cultures today, if all humanity descended from a single couple only 4000 some-odd years ago.

The answer we came up with was to assume that just as God diversified spoken languages and spread humanity across the earth at the time of Babel, as we are explicitly told in the biblical verses, so too were their physical/racial and cultural characteristics diversified. In fact, the descendents of three sons of Noah, Shem, Ham and Yafes, as listed earlier in the parsha, map to the Semitic (hence the name), African, and Caucasian racial/cultural groups respectively.

In looking to extend this concept, I thought about the connection between three events from the early part of the Torah, in each of which humanity was transitioned from one mode of living to another, via a direct act of God:

1) Man was originally created as a single, solitary being. According to many interpretations, this being had both male and female characteristics and was thus completely self-sufficient. However, God then decided that "it is not good for man to be alone" and split this creature into two separate beings, man and woman, who were thereafter meant to seek one another.

2) Man and woman then lived in the Garden of Eden with no obligations or responsibilities except to avoid eating from one particular tree. After they did so, God altered* their mode of living to one in which they would have challenges and obstacles to overcome throughout life, especially in the areas of child rearing, earning a living, and concerns about mortality.**

3) Humanity lived in a single city and had a unified purpose and mindset. God intervened to vary their languages, cultures, thoughts, appearances, etc. and then to physically scatter them across the globe.

The common thread among all these episodes is that they involve a change - an evolution, if you will - from uniformity and singularity to diversity and multiplicity. First, one being became two, then those two were thrust from a simple, pastoral, unchanging existence into a tumultuous and complex one, and finally, humanity itself was radically diverged.

It seems that in God's final plan, human coexistence is not to come too easy - it must be earned through difficult effort. There are multiple barriers even to marital harmony, and how much more so to world harmony. These barriers include basic differences of culture and outlook, of language and communication style, of physical and emotional perspective.

Perhaps the goal is that through the struggle to restore our lost unity, each of the diverse groups will have to understand, learn from, and eventually come to appreciate the good in the others. Through this clash, something new will develop, much greater than the sum of the parts. In the end, what will then be built is not just a uniformly pristine and perfect single world, but something infinitely better - the best of all worlds.

Update: Had another thought while reading this post on the flood. Perhaps along with diversifying the races, animal/plant species were diversified as well. This could explain why there are so many more species today than would have fit on the ark, and/or than there would have been time for evolution to account for in the ~4000 years since the flood.

* I don't use the word "cursed" since actually that word is not used in any of the verses in regard to either the man or woman themselves - only the "snake" and "ground" are cursed.

** Built upon ideas in the excellent book "How Good Do You Have To Be?" by Rabbi Harold Kushner


At 11/9/05, 10:09 PM, Blogger benros52589 said...

also a good kushner book why bad things happen to good people

At 10/27/06, 10:55 AM, Blogger Kylopod said...

In fact, the descendents of three sons of Noah, Shem, Ham and Yafes, as listed earlier in the parsha, map to the Semitic (hence the name), African, and Caucasian racial/cultural groups respectively.

Then where did the East Asian and Native American racial group(s) come from?

At 10/27/06, 11:25 AM, Blogger Elie said...

Good questions! Theories I've read have connected those groups to the Semitic race. And of course if racial diversity was a special act of God, there could have been multiple racial types among the families under each branch. That fits well with the pictures Steg posted which show the families under Ham to be very racially divergent.

At 10/27/06, 11:35 AM, Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der ┼íteg) said...

Another thing to remember when it comes to the Tower of Bavel and God 'enforcing diversity' as it were on the human race is that God's original directives to humanity were be fruitful and become many and fill the earth. The Tower-builders' ideas of unification around a single site were contrary to the divine plan, and so God simply nudged them back in the right, outward, direction.

At 10/27/06, 11:55 AM, Blogger Elie said...

I agree completely. Just learned through an Or Hachayim on the parsha that expanded on this. He was strongly in favor of this interpretation of the tower builder's intentions, as opposed to all the midrashic ones brought down by Rashi (e.g., that they wanted to war with the heavens, etc.).

At 10/27/06, 2:58 PM, Blogger Kylopod said...

Semitic people the forerunners of Native Americans? Well, maybe that explains the evidence of Phoenicians in early America. Of course, Native Americans are just as racially distinct from Semites as Caucasians are from Africans. And I'm not even getting into Australian Aborigines...


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